Let's Try Some Real Prison Reform

Prison and criminal justice reform is all the rage these days and rightfully so.  In some cases, the pendulum has swung so far to the “law and order” side that it is placing a serious burden on our prisons, police, courts and judges while costing billions of unnecessary dollars every year.  Coming to this conclusion does not mean a capitulation to liberal ideas for prison reform, but use of commonsense with two goals in mind.  The firstl is to alleviate the burden on prisons from being a warehouse of society’s riff-raff and reserving existing space for those truly deserving of being cast from society.  The second goal should be methods that are cost-effective and proven.  While this may sound like a swing to being soft on crime, it is more a swing to commonsense and using prisons correctly- to get the truly dangerous people off the streets.  And lest anyone think otherwise, most of the effective and innovative ideas are coming not from liberal states, but from conservative red states.

Unfortunately, about half the prison population is incarcerated for drug offenses.  The idea is not necessarily to go soft on drugs.  But there are alternatives to incarceration that have proven to be very effective in decreasing jail/prison populations and addressing the problem.   In Georgia, they have expanded the use of drug courts to deal with drug law violations.  Usually reserved for habitual drug users who run afoul of the law, they aim to steer offenders to rehabilitation rather than incarceration.  Likewise, those with mental illnesses are referred to social service agencies and their progress monitored by the court.  Texas, not known for being soft on crime, did the same and decreased their prison population while lowering the crime rate and saving the state $2 billion over a decade.  Georgia has also been at the forefront of community-based training.  This involves first time offenders of non-violent crimes (primarily drug possession) going to “classes” run by the state.

One area that cries out for reform is the sentencing guidelines and also “three-strikes laws.”  These latter laws were the rage in previous decades after highly publicized cases of repeat offenders being caught in heinous crimes.  With these laws, a third felony conviction gets the offender life imprisonment automatically. However, over the years the definition of “felony” has expanded and what may be a third “felony” may not even involve a victim, yet by definition that person gets sentenced to life in jail.  This writer has no problem with taking the serious offenders off the streets for life, but often less serious offenders are swept into the dragnet by virtue of the definition of the “felony” rather than the actual act.  For example, making a terroristic threat- without actual violence- is a “felony” in most states.  If it is the person’s third offense, they could get life in jail.  Many drug offenses fall within this category also.

Homicide is a whole separate story.  This crime, along with aggravated rape and certain other crimes, should be dealt with swiftly and sternly on the first offense.  A person convicted of homicide or certain other crimes should not get a second or third chance.  Swift, effective punishment upfront alleviates most problems on the back end.  The problem is the mushy, liberal judges who would mete out soft sentences to violent offenders without any concern for recidivism.  However, Ohio has developed a sentencing system based on recidivism risk assessment and proscribed penalties that appears to work in that it gets the high risk offenders off the streets for long periods of time, but allows greater judicial discretion- within limits- for lower risk offenders.  As with any system, nothing is perfect and fool-proof.  Some offenders will sneak through the cracks and there will be unfortunate high-profile offenses.  But the anecdotal should not trump the overall picture.

An associated “problem” is the sentencing disparities between crack and powder cocaine possession.  Because the black community “prefers” crack cocaine to powder cocaine does not make the greater sentences for crack the poster boy for institutional racism within the justice system.  Instead, the greater sentence was a reaction to a craze that was high profile and the deleterious effects.  Yet later investigations revealed that crack was no more “addictive” than its powder form, only less expensive, shorter-lasting and stronger in effect.  Still crack possession got you three times the sentence (sometimes six times the sentence) than if you had the powder form.  Because it is cheaper and more available- and a scourge- the penalties were enhanced.

There are other programs emanating from red states that show promise in prison reform.  Louisiana, for example, is at the forefront of parole and probation eligibility reform efforts for non-violent, non-sex crime first offenders.  This is important as it relates to “truth in sentencing” laws which require that an offender must serve at least 85% of their sentence before being eligible for parole.  If that threshold were dropped to 70%, it would free about 100,000 prison beds and save over $500 million annually.  Furthermore, states like Delaware allow prisoners to deduct up to 60 days per year from their sentence for good behavior during the previous year.  Other states reward prisoners with sentence reduction limits for participation in job-training programs, drug rehabilitation, and other programs.  Again, some people will slip through the cracks and game the system and this must be guarded against.

The simple fact remains that no one is 100% sure what causes someone to commit crimes although the psychologists, sociologists and penologists are long on theory.  There are simply evil people in this world who will do evil, heinous things despite the best efforts of society.  Prison is the place for this scum of the earth.

As an aside, I believe it would be worthwhile to consider allowing ex-felons the right to vote.  As mentioned previously, the definition of felony has expanded over the years and many people are denied this right for offenses long ago committed, many of which involved no victim or violence.  Provided the person has paid their debt to society and is in good standing in some type of probationary period, then they should be granted the right to vote again.  Of course, those in prison forfeit that right.

Community-based work-release programs where those convicted of low-level, non-violent crimes are offered “employment” in needed areas (construction, agriculture, etc.) in lieu of jail time should be considered.  The person would be paid minimum wage whereby they could retain up to 70% of their earnings with the remaining to satisfy fines or victim restitution.  In this way, the person is “employed,” the employer gets a low-risk, low paid worker, fines are paid and victims reimbursed.

Finally, those convicted of crimes who are in the country unlawfully must be deported.  Deportation is a civil procedure that must be speedy and streamlined.  If they re-enter the country illegally, then they should serve a lengthy sentence.  The number of non-citizens in prison exceeds 75,000 as of 2014.  More than half are housed in state or county jails placing a heavy burden on local authorities for a problem that rightfully belongs at the federal level.

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